Book Review: Echo’s Bones by Samuel Beckett

Samuel Beckett Illustration 2014 by jpbohannon

Samuel Beckett
Illustration 2014 by jpbohannon

Coincidences are no more than that, though I am very well aware of the research on them. (Freud once stated that  there were no such things as accidents, but I believe coincidences to be a lesser, less conscious form of accident. In the latter, the subconscious is directing you towards what might seem to be a accident but is actually rooted in one’s memory, suppressed or on the surface. Coincidence, on the other hand, is simply the awareness of a multiplication of events, of which one wasn’t completely cognizant or prepared for beforehand.)

So anyway, I attended an intense two-week workshop on education-on assessments and feedback and good old Bloom’s taxonomy. However, much of it was rooted in the teachings of Augustine–and much of the feedback I received  referenced Dante.

Before the workshop, however, I had bought a book, Echo’s Bones by Samuel Beckett. I knew it was something I would need to concentrate on–a 52 page short-story, accompanied by 58 pages of annotations, and complete with an introduction,  copies of the original typescript, letters from Beckett’s publishers, and a bibliography. This was not simply reading a short story, but sort an academic adventure. The type of diversion I hadn’t had in a while.

Cover of Samuel Beckett's Echo's Bones

Cover of Samuel Beckett’s Echo’s Bones

And so I waited until my Augustinian-laced workshop was over.

And then I began reading.  After I got  through the introduction and  into the story I began to smile. It was Augustine all over again with a large dollop of Dante.  In the first three pages alone there are five allusions to Augustine and four allusions to the Divine Comedy. And the main character, Belacqua, is given the nickname, Adeodatus–the name of Augustine’s illegitimate son.

So why all this hubbub about a short story that was written more than eighty years ago?  Well, Beckett had written a collection of interrelated short stories entitled More Pricks than Kicks.  Right before publication, however,  his publisher asked if Beckett would add a final story to the collection, to fatten it up, so to speak.

Beckett agreed, except there was one problem.  All the characters in the collection were now dead.  And so Beckett wrote “Echo’s Bones,”  which told the story of the dead Belacqua’s return to life in his short interim between death and eternity.  The publisher rejected the story, stating that it was too dark, too odd, and that it would make readers shudder.  And so More Pricks than Kicks was published as it was originally intended, and “Echo’s Bones” was assigned to the crypt of oblivion.  Until now.

The title refers to the mythological figure Echo, who tragically fell in love with Narcissus. (He was never a good catch for any woman. Too much competition with himself alone!)  Anyway, when she died, all that was left were her bones and her voice. Thus, we have “Echo’s Bones.”  If the editors had only known how perfectly the story’s title would foretell the nature of Beckett’s future work: a work of spotlighted voices–often disembodied (Krapp’s Last Tape), often body-less (HappyDays), and often flowing in a rushing stream (Ponzo’s soliloquy in Godot).

The plot is secondary to the wordplay, the erudition, the humor, and Beckett’s world view. Quickly: the dead Belacqua suddenly finds himself on a fence in a empty Beckettian landscape. A woman arrives and brings him to Lord Gall, a giant of a man with a paradisaical estate which he will lose because he is sterile and lacks a male heir. He convinces Belacqua  to bed his wife, in hope of an heir, but–in a twist of telescoped time–the woman gives birth to a daughter.  The story concludes with Belacqua conversing with his own grave digger (from an earlier story) and searching his own coffin for his body. The story ends with a familiar phrase in Beckett’s work and letters: “So it goes in the world.”  These are the last words of “Echo’s Bones,” but they are also the last words of “Draff,” the final story in the version of More Pricks than Kicks that was ultimately published.  A phrase that Beckett had picked up from the Brothers Grimm story “How the Cat and the Mouse Set up House,” it is a phrase that encapsulates Beckett’s life view and one that he used often even in his personal correspondence.

While I respect and love Beckett’s drama, I particularly enjoy his early fiction. Still under the influence of Joyce, Beckett, at this time, was  full of his verbal powers, delighting in the wordplay, and confident in his free association. It is always, for me, a treat to read.

 

 

Yes, Yes, Yes: Affirmation ala Molly Bloom

yes I said yes I will Yes.

Last Sunday was Bloomsday, the international celebration of James Joyce’s novel Ulysses.

Dublin had its usual extravaganza with crowds retracing Leopold Bloom’s wanderings and with women’s hats that rivaled those worn at major horse races (remember to bet it all on “throwaway.”) In New York, the complete novel was read outside writer Colum McCann’s tavern, aptly named Ulysses. And at Philadelphia’s Rosenbach Museum and Library, (where Joyce’s manuscript is housed) there was, beside the usual full reading, an unusual installation.

The artist, Jessica Deane Rosner, wrote out the entire text of the novel on 310 yellow, rubber, dish gloves and suspended them from the gallery ceiling in a very Joycean spiral. Rosner stated that it was Joyce who showed us that the things of everyday life–including the muck and the un-pretty–are the very essence of and inspiration for Art.

And so she used the mundane kitchen gloves to carry Joyce’s text–a text replete with the beauty of life’s mundane grime and natural effluences.

Jessica Deane Rosner’s Text of Ulysses on yellow rubber gloves.

Jessica Deane Rosner's Ulysses Glove Project suspended from ceiling of Rosenbach Gallery

Jessica Deane Rosner’s Ulysses Glove Project suspended from ceiling of Rosenbach Gallery

But that’s not what I want to talk about today. …

I want to talk about the last seven words of the novel, the strong affirmation that ended Molly Bloom’s long nighttime reverie in the early hours of June 17, 1904.

It is this affirmation, the “yes I said yes I will Yes” that makes Ulysses so important. For, if ever there was a modern Everyman, it is her husband, Leopold Bloom. Leopold the ridiculous, the schlump, the man she has cuckolded just hours before. Leopold the grieving, the masturbatory, the lecherous, the neighborly, the isolated, the humane, the persecuted. And to him–and he is each of us– Molly proclaims a resounding Yes!

And we all need to do more of the same. To say “Yes.”

illustration 2012 jpbohannon

illustration © 2012 jpbohannon

I have a good friend, Ken Campbell, who served thirteen long months in Vietnam before becoming one of the leading figures in the Vietnam Vets Against the War movement. This fall the two of us went together to see Samuel Beckett’s Endgame. I wallowed in the existential bleakness; he did not. He enjoyed the company. He had spent too long in Vietnam, wondering every night if he was going to live another day, and today he has no time for Beckett’s desperate vision.

He sides much more with Molly Bloom’s “Yes”!

So here’s to saying “yes.” Saying “yes” to all the myriad things and people that life places in front of us: like the noodle shop at 56th and 6th in NYC… the children’s fountain on the Ben Franklin Parkway…the surprise of 310 yellow rubber gloves hanging from an elegant ceiling.

Endings, beginnings, and start-overs

Before I began teaching at the school where I currently teach, I worked in an advertising agency. During the interview process at the school, the headmaster asked me what I thought would be the greatest difference. My answer was “Endings.”

dandraper       mrchips

In the advertising world, it was not unusual for some print ad for which I had written copy  nine, twelve, eighteen months earlier needing to be re-tweaked  later. We are changing our direction, the headline is too “downtown,”  we want to downplay the price, emphasize the sponsor, etc., etc.  Things never were truly complete. They were signed-off on, yes. But they were never done with.

Teaching, however, is one of those professions where there are periodic endings, arbitrary endpoints where the slate is wiped clean, one can review what went right, rue what went wrong, and learn from both.

It is the end of May now, but I know that I and many of my colleagues are already plotting out projects and readings, weighing shifts in focus and shifts in technique, and (always on my part) constructing schemes to stay better organized in the upcoming school year.

And besides a chance to start anew, the end of a quarter, a semester, a school year offers a chance to bury the past and move forward. To begin again.

I used to have the Beckettian quote, Try Again, Fail Again, Fail Better, posted on the wall of my office. At the time, it was a personal mantra for me, for my own work. I was not thinking of teaching. This year it has become a buzzword/phrase throughout education.failbetter1

All over in print and on the web there are articles about the value of failing, about the necessity of failing, of the embrace of failing. And we as teachers know that as well as anyone–for ourselves, if not necessarily for our students.  For what is the end of each term but a chance to review our failings and resolve to “fail better” next time.

Now with the end of the school year, there is also the spate of “commencement speeches” that must be heard. Those talks given to graduating seniors in colleges and high-schools around the country that are especially inspiring, especially poignant, especially relevant.

David Foster’s Wallace’s commencement speech at Kenyon University has become legendary. For a long while it was shot all over the internet, and then capitalism took over and someone decided to release it as a book.  It has been abridged and made into a wonderful short film, This is Water. Like all great commencement speeches, this is wise, humorous, and relevant without falling into clichés. It emphasizes compassion and empathy, warns graduates of the sometimes benumbing world of adulthood, and charges them to make their world better by understanding it more tolerantly.

Lately, Neil Gaiman’s 2012 speech at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia has been parsed and tweeted, analyzed and blogged about. It has been highly criticized and highly praised. It is about creativity and about personal freedom. And, of course, at this time of year, it is all over the place and referenced almost every time you log on.

And even Jane Lynch, the wonderful actress who has appeared in so many of the Christopher Guest films and now stars in the television show Glee, even Jane Lynch keeps appearing in my in-box and my twitter feeds and blogs that I follow because of the inspiring speech she gave in 2012 to the women of Smith College.  It too is forthright and wise and commanding.

But it is the nature of graduation speeches to address an audience as they START OUT into something new.  One of the joys/perks of teaching is that one gets to START OVER.  My best and frequent companion these days is a 7-year old boy with whom I play a lot of games.  Often when something goes wrong for him in a game we are playing, he is the first to yell, “Start Over” (though just as often he simply  changes the rules!)  Who knew that the gaming-strategy of a 7-year-old is the same spark that keeps good teachers fresh, engaged and effective?

Blogging, Beckett and a Seven-Year Old Boy

It was one year ago last week that I started blogging.  But I  quit before that anniversary came around.

Yes, I quit blogging in late November, because I could no longer do it.  I loved doing it. I had met some extraordinary people–Romanians in London, Americans in Ecuador, an art colony in Italy.  I enjoyed thinking about the books I read, the music I heard, the films I watched.  And I enjoyed trying to get those thoughts “down on paper.”

photo

Henry dressed as the “Holy Roman Emperor Saint Henry” for Halloween last October.

But then my life changed drastically and blogging found itself way down on my list of priorities.

I became responsible for a seven-year old boy.

Henry is a delightful young boy. He is creative, bright, and personable.  And it is my job, to a degree, to nurture and protect him. I shower him with love and I make sure that he knows he is loved. I try to pay attention to what he does and what he says and what he feels.

We play silly word games. We read together: I to him on the sofa; he to me on the steps, (where the game is that I must go up or down a step every time he turns a page.)  He is seven years old, but will still hold my hand when we walk places, at least for now.  We often take “adventures” together, and these are usually simple jaunts across the city on public transportation. We take a trolley and then a subway and then a train and then we reverse ourselves, adding in a bus on the return trip. He points out train yards and sidings, trolley tracks and subway couplers. We stay and wave to the drivers after we get off and they drive away. (He does LOVE his transportation!)

Sure, there are time when I must get him to do things that he doesn’t want to: to try foods he does not like (that comprises everything that isn’t pizza) or to stop talking and listen when others are speaking or to slow down with his homework, with his handwriting. I try to teach him, and I try to do so with patience, with gentleness and with love.

For the most part, when I am not at work, I am with him, or I am asleep. And when I am at work, I am thinking about him and worrying about him.

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Henry and I on the R5

Having a seven-year old in your 30s is one thing; having a seven-year old in your late 50s is something else altogether.  I haven’t read a book in I can’t say how long. My film-going is greatly constricted.  And my television viewing is completely limited to Phineas and Ferb (don’t ask!) and America’s Funniest Home Videos.  And yet his enjoyment of both of these shows is genuine and sweet. He laughs with purity and with delight. And that, I wouldn’t trade  for anything.

♦     ♦     ♦     ♦     ♦     ♦     ♦     ♦     ♦     ♦

I went out last Thursday night with my wife and some friends to see a play: Endgame by Samuel Beckett.  I had read it many times, but had never seen it performed, and so we made definite plans to get there.

Endgame is the second of the four major plays that Beckett wrote following World War II. (Waiting For Godot, Endgame, Krapps Last Tape and HappyDay.) Situated firmly in the Theater of the Absurd, Endgame presents Hamm, a blind, crippled man who sits in a make-shift wheel-chair in a single, disheveled room. He is tended to by Clov, who, conversely, is unable to sit.  In the room are also two trash bins.  In the one is Hamm’s legless father, Nagg, and in the other, his legless mother, Nell. Hamm pontificates on the bleakness of  life, on the attraction of story-telling, on the uncertainty of a future.  It is one of my favorite plays.

In one piece of dialogue that I particularly love, Hamm asks Clov to open the trash bin to see what his father is doing:

          HAMM (letting go his toque)
                What’s he doing?
               (Clov raises lid of Nagg’s bin, stoops, look into it. Pause.)

            CLOV
               
He’s crying.
                  (He closes lid, striaghtens up.)

          HAMM
                Then he’s living.

I love this. How simple, how poignant, how piercing. It perfectly captures Beckett’s–and to a large degree, my own–world view.  For better or worse, my personal philosophy has long been greatly informed by Beckett’s.  Or else, I had already formed it and because of that I found Beckett. But, for one reason or another, I am drawn to his bleakness and  emptiness–and to the black humor that attends it.

Endgame_2_high

Nancy Boykin and Dan Kern as Nell and Nagg in Arden Theater’s production of Endgame. Philadelphia, February 28, 2013.
© Photos by Mark Garvin

Endgame_8_high

Scott Greer and James iJames as Hamm and Clov in the Arden Theater’s production of Endgame. Philadelphia, February 28, 2013.
© Photos by Mark Garvin

As I said, I have long enjoyed and embraced Beckett’s dire existentialism.  But now, I can no longer afford it, can no longer afford to wallow in such bleakness, to delight in such barren absurdity.  I have to try to tamp it down. For I have Henry now to take care of, and that is very much the purpose of my life.